Bugatti is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the racing debut of one of its most innovative cars: the Type 32 ‘Tank’.
This streamlined racing car was to lay the foundations for aerodynamic motorsport innovations, earning its nickname not only for its shape — but also for its visible rivets and bolts.
The occasion was the 1923 French Grand Prix, the venue the city of Tours in the beautiful Loire Valley, where 300,000 spectators gathered to enjoy an event that promised plenty of high-octane excitement (from an array of cutting-edge race cars).
The car that attracted the most attention, however, was the bold machine that was testament to the genius of Ettore Bugatti and his relentless quest for improvement by defying convention.
The slip-streamed Type 32, with its airplane-inspired wing-shaped body, was a real eye catcher, and a result of Bugatti’s conviction that advanced aerodynamics would play an increasingly important role in enhancing the performance of racing cars.
Although it clothed a heavily modified Type 30 with its 2.0-litre eight-cylinder engine that developed in the region of 66kW, the unusual fairing, relatively short wheelbase and narrow track meant it looked like nothing else on the grid — and it caused a sensation.
The Type 32 benefited from numerous innovative engineering solutions, techniques and designs.
There was an under-slung chassis and front hydraulic brakes, while a three-speed and reverse transaxle transmission added to the sense of adventure.
In total, five Type 32s were built: a prototype plus the four cars which took part in the Grand Prix, an affair that constituted a gruelling 35 laps of a 22.83km circuit on public roads — totalling just under 800km.
Of these four cars, the most successful was piloted by French driver Ernest Friderich, who finished third, completing the race in seven hours and 22.4 seconds at an average speed of just over 112km/h.
It was a creditable finish for the Type 32, but Tours was to prove its only GP appearance, as Bugatti switched his focus on developing the iconic Type 35.
Despite its short racing career, the Type 32 proved an invaluable exercise for Bugatti and many of the lessons learned were ultimately to pay dividends.
In particular, the belief that aerodynamic efficiency could play such a pivotal, decisive role was proven conclusively in another race car whose streamlined, enclosed body also earned it the ‘Tank’ moniker — the 57G.
It dominated endurance racing for a glorious period in the 1930s, securing victory in the 1936 French Grand Prix and even more notably at Le Mans in 1937, demonstrating that Ettore Bugatti’s vision was correct.
The Bugatti Type 32 Tank can be found at Musée National de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, France, but can still be seen in action at certain historic races.